The fences around churchyards were iron for a reason. Time wore on, though, as it always does, and that reason was forgotten. People erected chain fences and used padlocks to keep other people out. They forgot about the things that needed to be kept in.
Jack stood by the gate with her hood up, watching the people as they moved about among the tombstones to visit ancestors and loved ones. With any luck, none of them would see her. It was rare but possible. After all, those who were close to needing her services were likely to have death on the mind. She glanced at the sky. The sun would be setting soon, and then it would be time to get to work. Once the living were gone, then she could look for that which they had set free.
A long, low moan echoed through the now empty burying ground and Jack winced. It was the sound of metal grinding somewhere. Probably a crypt door, if she knew anything about her line of work. Now came the first of many unpleasant parts of the evening: crossing the boundary line into the sanctified part of the grounds. Jack stretched and pulled her hood down as she walked towards the fence. Then she passed through it. That was never a fun time, but she had made it through. That meant it was hunting time. Extending her hand, she called her scythe forth and spun it idly as she walked.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
She singsonged her words as she scanned the area around her. There was the open crypt. Time to investigate. She stepped up to the door and stuck her head inside.
“Olly olly oxen free!”
But there was nothing undead in there. Nothing moving.
“Well, that’s bad. That means it’s out there somewhere.”
Turning, she scanned the horizon again. It would be here still, somewhere. Then she gritted her teeth. No, it had a way out, dammit.
“Stupid humans forgetting the rules!”
Scythe in hand, Jack sprinted for the main gate of the cemetery. Iron would have kept the thing in. Iron would have kept the humans safe. Iron would have made her job a world of easier. Instead, she found herself getting there just too slow as the undead creature wrenched the gates open and crossed the barrier. The land of the living had been breached. Jack swung her scythe up into an attack position. She still had time, before something else noticed what had happened. She could still reap this lost soul and keep the world in balance. Then something slammed into her from behind. When she stood again, her prey was gone and a human teenager sat on the ground behind her, blinking up with wide confused eyes from behind his too-large glasses.
“Well, shit. This day just keeps getting better and better…”
She was all he had left. All he’d had left since the day those things had first shown up. The common parlance called them zombies, and they almost matched the tropes of the horror movies, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were nearly impossible to kill and had long since destroyed civilization as we once knew it. He had been home with his daughter, far from the cities where the outbreaks had been the worst. His wife, though, she had been at work at the hospital. They had never heard from her again.
They had to move again now, he and his daughter. They were making their way west, aiming to trek into the mountains and then start making their way north. Assuming they could enter Canada, of course. The rumors coming from the frozen north were that the creatures were there too but only in the southernmost areas. It seemed they had trouble with the cold. They were moving on foot, the car a scrap heap hundreds of miles behind them. They each carried a backpack and he had his father’s rifle. Not that he thought it would be useful against the creatures. But if other humans tried to be a problem, he would deal with it.
The underbrush was thick in this part of the forest, with lots of bushes that obscured the area around them. That was how they stumbled onto the scene. A creature. Just one, thank anything that might still be listening. It was feasting on a kill. He reached out but his daughter had already stopped in her tracks. The creature would be on them in a heartbeat if it noticed them. They couldn’t let it notice them. The head shot up and the creature sniffed the air and hissed. It was a hollow rattling sound, the kind of thing that leaves a body with their hair on end no matter how brave they think they are.
The only way anyone had been able to come up with to kill the things was complete destruction. Water was useless, as were the old legendary standbys of decapitation and firearms. Fire took time and left them able to function while immolated, which wasn’t really an improvement. Acid was reasonably alright if you could keep the creature contained. All in all, the most effective was probably a woodchipper. He had a rifle and his daughter had a knife. Things weren’t exactly looking great. He took a breath and then shoved the rifle into his daughter’s hands, pointing towards a way around. Then he ran at the creature, screaming.
She was all he had left. If only one of them was going to make it out of here alive, it would be her.
“Have you ever noticed,” he started, leaning forward on the bench to light his cigarette. “This shit never starts on a normal night. No one ever says ‘oh, it was a quiet evening when all them corpses came shooting up out the ground.’ No, sir. It’s always a dark and stormy night when the dogs are howling and lightning cracks the sky.”
I leaned back, trying to ignore the smoke. Mack was my senior partner. I couldn’t exactly tell him to cut it out. The smokes or the tales. He was like that. It was why he kept getting stuck with the newest guard walking a beat. None of the folks with seniority would take him. Of course, it didn’t help that his last partner had ended up throat-cut and left in a ditch. Not that anyone blamed Mack. That’s just what you did when your partner turned into a soul-sucker. Me? I wasn’t going to get turned, and I wasn’t going to ditch Mack for a desk or a partner with less odd in them. He was one of the best at getting results in a job where most of us died or got turned. He tapped the top of the silver stake holstered at his side and I wondered briefly just how many soul-suckers he’d gotten with that thing. Or how many soulless he’d taken out with the axe holstered on his other side.
Those were our normal kit. A silver stake for the soul-suckers, a steel axe for the soulless, and zip cords for the thralls. They weren’t strong enough to require more than that. Add on light armor to cover all the major arteries and we were pretty well equipped for the job.
“When it starts, sure, but it happens all the time. Any night and sometimes during the day, if it’s dark enough.”
“Aye. Them damn tunnels. And whoever thought traveling underground was safe? Too close to the devils down in Hell.”
Sunlight stopped soul-suckers, but artificial lights did nothing. Didn’t even annoy them, more’s the pity. Standing, Mack took a long drag on his cigarette and turned to look at me.
“Come on, kid. We’ve got a tunnel on this patrol and I’m keen to give it the monthly clear-out before we find out we’ve got ourselves a breeding den or some such.”
So, I’d say I was having the worst day of my life…but I’m not really sure that covers it anymore. Yesterday was just another day, minding my own business and going to class. Today? Well, I’m currently sitting about two feet off the ground watching my body chase after a squirrel. I don’t even know why. If it’s got any actual biological functions working, I don’t know what they are. Oh, right, I should probably give you some background here, huh? I’m Tess and I’m…I was? I was a medical student here. Sometime last night, someone screwed up pretty bad in one of the experimental labs on campus. Something about working with a strain of rabies? I don’t know the details. Anyway, something happened and now we’re having our own personal zombie apocalypse. And I got killed before I got my coffee. Oh, speaking of coffee. My now creepily animated-body decided to dump the pot of coffee over me…it? Sure, it. Maybe her. I don’t know. How do you refer to your own corpse? Seriously, Universe, last week when I said it would be exciting to live in an episode of Supernatural, I meant as a major character, not ‘Ghost on the Left’. So yeah. Anyway, current working theory on the whole coffee pot incident is that physical addiction remains post-reanimation. I’m half tempted to go down the frat houses and see if any of those idiots have gotten turned yet. That could prove my theory. What would a zombie be like on hallucinogens? God, this would be a glorious thesis. Too bad I’m a little too dead to be a doctor now. Oh, look, I’m off again. Was it another squirrel? Oh…oh…nope. Campus police. Poor guy doesn’t stand a chance. No, you idiot, get off the segway and run. Dammit. Oh, huh, looks like the impulse that keeps us from biting down on our own flesh is gone. Wacky. Also, zombie-me is now missing the tip of her tongue. I’m not overly surprised that instinct goes. I mean, seriously. That’s not exactly rocket science levels of brain function, but it’s still slightly above lizard hindbrain, which is what appears to be in control. The fine motor is largely gone and it looks like the center of balance might be screwed up. I wonder if that’s a common trait or if zombie-me sustained damage? I need to figure out how to haunt a computer or something because I need to take notes on this. I wonder if zombie-me broke my tablet?
Rain cascaded down the glass, obscuring her vision but it didn’t matter. She knew he was still out there with his eyes on the house, on the window, on her. Sarah had never regretted more than now extracting the promise from Jacob that nothing and no one would ever prevent him from returning to her from the war that threatened to split the country in twain forever, that tore brother from brother and tore men limb from limb. Now Jacob stood out there in the rain with his once crisp uniform stark with his blood and ragged. His held his head under his arm and stared with unblinking eyes up at the house. Backing away from the window, Sarah tried to think, tried to focus on anything but those unblinking eyes.
His cry hung in the air like the keening of a banshee and her hands began to shake. She had done this to him with her foolish crossroads oath. This was what happened when she tried to tempt fate.
“Sarah! Why won’t you let me in? I’m so cold, Sarah…”
She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders, tears running down her cheeks. She leaned heavily against the front door, hearing him shift on the front porch just beyond.
“Jacob… Oh, my Jacob.”
“Sarah, I kept my word. I came home just as soon as the fighting was done for me. Now we can wed.”
She choked on a sob, throat tight.
“Jacob, love, we-we can’t. You died.”
The door shook as he slammed his fist into it and Sarah screamed.
“You wrote it at the crossroads at midnight, Sarah. Just the same as I did. And I’m here, just as I said I would be.”
Her blood ran cold and her whole body was shaking. She fell back away from the door as the knob began to turn.
“You promise me. You promised if I came back and let no one and nothing stop me. I didn’t even let my own cold grave stop me from coming back to you.”
She looked up from where she knelt and he stood there, still holding his head and looking at her with those wide, unblinking eyes. He knelt before her and she tried to scramble back.
“Do you remember when we were children and they told us never to make a promise you don’t intend to keep?” He brushed freezing fingers against the warm flesh of her cheeks as she cried. “You don’t get a choice in keeping this one, my dearest. The crossroads knows.”
As he said the last, fear and pain together gripped Sarah as a feeling like a hot poker lanced through her chest. She labored to breathe and then fell to the floor, unmoving. As her ghost rose, Jacob left his own broken body beside hers. Once again whole and handsome, he reached for her hand. Sarah only looked once at the two bodies lying together on the wood floor before she took his hand and they walked into eternity together as husband and wife, both regretting their deaths and a midnight trip to the crossroads to make a deal.